“Fringe” is all about an impending universal collapse, in which Over Here is locked in a war with Over There that neither truly understand. Problem is, “Fringe” is threatening to collapse under a different type of struggle: the struggle between the show’s sci-fi strains and its increasingly melodramatic ones. It’s not as if the show has been devoid of emotional elements: indeed, the core family at the heart of the show (The Bishops, Olivia, Astrid) have given it a special place in the post-“Lost” pantheon of genre shows. But there’s a difference between having a beating heart at the center of a fantastical story and explaining away intergalactic vortexes away through the power of THE HUMAN HEART, as evidenced tonight in “6B.” One makes me happy. The other makes me slightly queasy.
All of this is a shame, since there was an incredibly complex moral conundrum beneath all the Sturm und Drang of Olivia and Peter’s will they/won’t they saga. Back in my would-be theatre days, the first play I ever acted in was Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” That play, Stoppard’s first and still one of his most beloved, featured a lengthy opening sequence in which the titular pair discuss the nature of reality while flipping a coin that lands hands over ninety times in a row. So, imagine my delight at watching Walter flip coins tonight inside the Rosencrantz Building, assuming the show would turn into a treatise on how events tend to take on more meaning as more people witness it. After all, at some point our world is going to have to be made more aware of its counterpart, no matter how much Massive Dynamic and Fringe Division seek to cover it up.
And in some ways, that’s exactly what happened as one major element from Over There threatened to cross over into ours: the horrific amber. I enjoyed how the show retrofitted the bus incident from Season 1’s “The Ghost Network” into a way to introduce the moral quandary of unleashing Over Here’s first quarantine. Massive Dynamic, usually so gung ho about new technologies, tiptoed around this new substance with fear. Broyles bugged out at the possibility of encasing city blocks. And Walter started to wonder just how different he truly was from his counterpart, Walternate.
That last aspect fascinated me the most tonight, as it got to the central aspects of the small yet palpable differences between both sides. Using the metaphor of the coin toss, Walter’s dilemma shows just how random events that happen to each identity iteration can’t fully take into account the fundamental sameness of the subjects being affected by this cross-universal butterfly effect. Quantum entanglements not only affect couples in love on either side of the great divide, but potentially affect one’s doppelganger as well. What kept our Walter from truly turning into Walternate by now was the brain matter removed by William Bell. But did that operation prevent it or merely delay it?
That’s a question Walter asks himself as well as Nina Sharp during the cost-benefit analysis inherent in “amber quarantine” versus “city-sucking vortex” presents itself for the first time Over Here. We’ve seen just how pervasive they are on the other side, which is indicative of just how much worse things are on that side at the current moment. It’s a world in which vortexes are incorporated into everyday reality, whereas the first amber encasement Over Here might make what’s going on in Wisconsin right now seem like a friendly disagreement between BFFs to say the least. Between Alice Merchant realizing the true nature of her vision of Derrick and Olivia having to brief Broyles on the proper protocol for amber quarantines, it was an hour in which Over There truly started to bleed into the everyday on our side.
All of this is great. I’m jiggy with it up until this point. What worries me, and perhaps terrifies me a touch, is the way in which one can look at the resolution of “6B” as a test run for the resolution of the Doomsday Device plotline. I can deal with something like quantum entanglement causing people to reach out and touch another across universes. If it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me. (Basic rule of thumb and all.) But what bugged me, above and beyond the anvilicious way in which Alice/Derrick stood in for a possible future Olivia/Peter, was the way in which emotionally letting someone go somehow shut down a potential black hole. Because if the world survives because our Olivia plays Peter some Velvet Underground while he’s in the device, then I’m going to find the “Fringe” writing staff and encase THEM in amber.
Moreover, this soapy plotline between the pair has turned Anna Torv back into Season 1 levels of lethargy, yielding a performance that has very little to do with her talent and almost everything to do with the quality of material handed to her. Likewise, letting Joshua Jackson essentially spend half the episode doe-eyed hoping for a smooch isn’t the best use of his skillset. These two are now nominally together, so hooray for that, but we know there’s an ever-growing problem (literally!) Over There to complicate this newfound love connection on our side.
Having the romantic relationship between the central pair high in the overall narrative mix might work for a show like “Chuck,” but could potentially cripple “Fringe.” I have absolutely no way of proving this, but I can’t help but wonder if the slightly (yet unfortunately steadily) dropping numbers for the show reflect fan resistance to the heavy emphasis on plotlines aimed at ‘shippers more than fans of the show’s mythology, quirky sense of humor, and makeshift family dynamics. There’s still plenty of reason to think Sam Weiss’ declaration a few weeks back is, not unlike the Transformers, more than meets the eye. But episodes like tonight aren’t giving me a lot of confidence at this point.
There’s a vortex starting to open at the heart of the show. I just hope they can fix it before FOX quarantines it for good.
Other thoughts about tonight’s episode:
*** Walter’s wistful line about William Bell’s “soul magnets” is the type of fusion between pseudoscience and emotion that actually WORKS. Telling Nina that he was still waiting for Bell’s call from the great beyond was a highlight of tonight’s hour.
*** What is it with Bad Robot and balcony incidents? First Hurley causes a collapse of one over on “Lost,” and tonight a group fall right through one.
*** While I had issues with the resolution of the vortex, I did like that Over There Astrid’s math was proven wrong. I like the idea that science can only calculate human decision to a point, which leaves free will in play. Reminds me a lot of Asimov’s “Foundation” series, in which a mathematician could predict the actions of civilizations but couldn’t account for the actions of a single agent.
*** I want to read Walter Bishop’s 1973 article in the New England Journal of Medicine scientifically proving that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
*** My favorite line? “Perhaps I should have made a frittata!” Least favorite? “If there was a rift here, it’s closed now.” Just sounded like a bad closing line to a bad Bond film.
*** Should we be worried about a potential scene in the season finale in which everyone Over Here can see everyone Over There? And who will be the first side to offer the other a conciliatory Coca-Cola?
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Are you happy with the way the season is progressing, or are you sharing some of my concerns? Does the Olivia/Peter romance enhance the show for you or detract from it? Sound off below!
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